Thursday, November 5, 2020

Not Again: Oppositions That Went Backwards Twice In A Row

 A rare form of failure that normally happens about once a decade has happened on the conservative side of Australian politics at two elections in the space of two weeks.  In both the Queensland and the ACT elections, the official Opposition went backwards in seat share for the second election contested as such in a row.  (To be clear about what counts here, Victoria 2018 is not the same thing, since in 2014 the Liberals had contested the Victorian election as the incumbent government - both elections must be contested from opposition to qualify.)  Such a rare event happening to two Oppositions right now might be considered as a sign of how hard life is for Oppositions during the COVID-19 pandemic, or it might also be argued that the two Oppositions in question were unusually hopeless.  In one case (Queensland) there are also some special factors at play.  Anyway, such an event is so unusual that I thought it would be interesting to list all the cases I have found since 1900 of it happening, whether at federal, state or territory level.  I have not found any case of an Opposition going backwards at three elections as the Opposition in a row.  


Some summary statistics: conservative Oppositions now have a 7-6 lead in cases of this failure, however all three federal cases involved Labor.  By term of government, six of the thirteen cases have happened at the end of a government's first and second terms, two for 2nd/3rd, two for 3rd/4th, two for 4th/5th and one for 6th/7th.   Age of government isn't much of a barrier given that three of the governments involved were between 15 and 20 years old (with the ACT Labor government in the most recent case the oldest).  In four of the thirteen cases, most famously federal Labor under Evatt and Calwell, the Opposition had the same leader at both elections it went backwards at.  Of all the state and territory cases, in five cases the backsliding Opposition was of the same side as the federal government at both elections (this includes all four cases in the last 50 years), in two cases the Opposition was the same side as the federal Opposition, and three cases were mixed.  

Tasmania 1919/1922 (Labor)

It may seem strange to see a future Prime Minister like Sir Joseph Lyons on this list, but he's here.  In 1914 Labor under John Earle had taken power mid-term after the Liberal (not the modern party) government elected at the previous election collapsed. Labor lost the 1916 election to Walter Lee's Liberals 15 seats to 14 plus one independent.  By 1919, Lyons was the Labor leader and Labor lost again, 16-13-1.  In 1922, another loss for Labor, 12-12-5-1 (the five were Country MPs who initially supported the now Nationalist government).  The new coalition soon collapsed and Lyons was Premier before the next election, which he won easily.

Queensland 1923/1926 (Conservative coalitions)

Labor won the 1915 election from opposition under the leadership of T. J. Ryan.  Ryan resigned to go into federal politics in 1919 (a glittering career being cut short by his premature death of pneumonia in 1921) and was replaced by Ted Theodore, who won the close 1920 election with 38 seats out of 72 to the National/Country coalition's 31 (one of them won by an unendorsed Country member who unseated the incumbent), with the separate Northern Country Party taking the rest.  At the 1923 election Labor won with 43 seats to 29 for the now United/Country coalition, and in 1926 Labor won with 43 seats to 28 for another Opposition rebadge, the Country and Progressive National Party.  The final seat in 1926 was won by Wilfred Russell under the Primary Producers banner; he later joined the CPNP though I am not sure how much later.  Having gone backwards for the second time in a row in Opposition against an 11-year old fourth-term government, the CPNP won in 1929.

(Note: there are a number of issues with seat tallies on Wikipedia for the 1920 election especially. I believe the above for 1920 is correct per here and by tallying the individual seat results.)

Tasmania 1937/1941 (Nationalist)

Labor governed in Tasmania from 1934 to 1969.  In 1934 Labor under Albert Ogilvie won office in minority with 14 seats to 13 for the Nationalists and three independents.  In 1937 Ogilvie won again, 18-12 (a pasting in Hare-Clark terms).  In 1941, an even bigger win for Labor under Robert Cosgrove, 20 seats to 10.  Cosgrove was Premier for most of the next 20 years.  

Western Australia 1939/1943 (Conservative coalition)

Labor won the 1933 election from opposition under the leadership of Philip Collier.  In 1939 the Nationalist/Country coalition went backwards from 21 seats to 19, though one of the losses was to an "independent Nationalist".  In 1943 the coalition dropped back to 17 (despite the "independent Nationalist" from the previous election having joined them.)  Having gone backwards for the second time in a row in Opposition against a third-term government, the Country/Nationalist coalition won 25/50 seats in 1947 and formed government.  

South Australia 1947/1950 (Labor)

Assisted by malapportionment, the Liberal and Country League governed in South Australia from 1933 to 1962.  In 1944 it beat Labor 20 seats to 16 with 3 independents, in 1947 23-13-3 and in 1950 23-12-4.

Federal 1955/1958 (Labor)

Labor nearly won the 1954 federal election, at which the second-term Menzies government survived some of the worst federal polling ever seen to cling on by 64 seats to 57.  However in following years the Opposition was wracked by the Democratic Labor split.  Menzies won the 1955 election with a nearly 5% 2PP swing and 75 seats to 47.  There was very little swing in 1958 but Labor again had a net seat loss to finish with 45 seats to the government's 77.  Labor bounced back in 1961 but not quite by enough (see Federal 1963/1966)

Victoria 1958/1961 (Labor)

The Liberal Party under Henry Bolte defeated John Cain Snr's Labor government in 1955 with 33 seats to 20 and 11 for the crossbench Country Party, as well as one proto-DLP Labor splitter and one independent.  In 1958 Labor shed two seats (39-18-9) and in 1961 another seat (39-17-9-1).  These two elections were massive wins for Bolte on a two-party basis.  Labor did not see government again until 1982.

Federal 1963/1966 (Labor)

Labor nearly won the 1961 election, with the Menzies government hanging on 62 seats to 60.  Having survived that scare, the government won the 1963 election comfortably, 72 seats to 50 for Labor.  Menzies then handed the baton to Harold Holt, who won a crushing victory against Labor under the outdated leadership of Arthur Calwell.  The Coalition won nearly 57% of the two-party vote and 82 seats to 41.

NSW 1978/1981 (Coalition)

Labor under Neville Wran won the 1976 election from Opposition with a one-seat majority (50 seats to 48 for the Coalition, with one for an independent).  This was followed by the "Wranslide" in 1978 with Labor winning 57.8% of the primary vote (over 60% 2PP) and a 63-35-1 majority.  In 1981 there was a 2% swing against Labor, but Labor had in the meantime passed electoral reforms - most relevantly, to end malapportionment.  The Coalition was reduced to 28 seats, but returned to office in 1988, two elections later.

NSW 1998/2003 (Coalition)

Labor under Bob Carr won the 1995 election from Opposition with 50 seats compared to 46 for the Coalition and 3 independents.  The parliament was downsized slightly in 1998 but the Coalition was downsized more, as Carr won massively 55-33-5 with around 56% two-party preferred.  A similar drubbing followed in 2003 and the Coalition dropped another seat (55-32-6).  After Carr left, Labor had another very large win in 2007 and then was thrashed in 2011.

Federal 2001/2004 (Labor)

Labor won the two-party-preferred vote at the 1998 federal election but personal vote effects and outstanding marginal seat sandbagging enabled the Howard government to survive with 80 seats to 67 for Kim Beazley's Labor opposition and one independent.  In 2001 Beazley looked on track to win early in the year, but polling was already narrowing rapidly before the Tampa incident and 9/11 attacks boosted the Government, which won with 82 seats to 65 with three independents.  Then in 2004 Labor had a famous flop under Mark Latham with the Coalition winning 87-60-3; Labor then won the next election under Kevin Rudd.

and now ...

ACT 2016/2020 (Liberal)

Labor has governed since 2001 in the ACT but since 2008 has depended on Greens support.  In 2012 the Liberals came quite close to winning under Zed Seselja, with Labor winning eight seats, the Liberals eight (47%) and the Greens one.  The parliament was expanded in 2016 but there was a primary vote swing against the Liberals and their seat share also declined; a 12-11-2 result meant they now had 44% of the seats.  There was a further primary vote swing in 2020 and the 10-9-6 result meant the Liberals had been reduced to 36% of the parliament.

Queensland 2017/2020 (LNP)

The one-term LNP government of Campbell Newman was dumped in 2015, with Labor forming a minority government under Annastacia Palaszczuk with 44 seats to 42 for the LNP and three crossbenchers.  The parliament was expanded by four seats for the 2017 election but the LNP went backwards despite there being very little two-party swing, partly as a result of personal vote effects from 2015 and partly as a result of increased crossbencher success; the final seat result was 47-39 and six crossbenchers.  In 2020 the LNP finished with just 34 seats after losing another five seats to Labor.  This case may be exceptional in that Labor's first term saw it slip further into minority after losing two MPs to the crossbench, which may have affected its 2017 result.

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